Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
In the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration there are many pictures that reflect the American experience. The famous riveter in We Can Do it, or Uncle Sam in I Want You, just to name a few, are familiar to many. However, as time passes, the original context behind many images may be lost or forgotten. Fortunately, by using the textual documents found at the National Archives the past can be reconstructed to reveal the stories behind these pictures. Take for example the following poster created during World War II by artist Leon Helguera:
This poster was created for the Office of War Information (OWI), the World War II agency responsible for wartime propaganda. OWI, founded in 1942, produced information material in all media types, including print, radio, and film to support the war effort, bolster morale, and counter enemy propaganda. However, OWI did not work alone in its efforts to influence public opinion. Another wartime agency, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), worked in parallel to OWI, and was specifically responsible for strengthening ties with Latin America. This was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, first expressed in his 1933 inauguration speech, when he indicated that the United States would not intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries. By the 1940s, the policy also included trade, cooperation, and as it related to OWI and CIAA, the dissemination of positive press, publicity, and propaganda in order to foster amicable relations between the nations. In 1942, with the war in full swing, it was important for the U.S. to have the support and cooperation of its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere against the Axis powers along with a united citizenry on the home front. In regard to the latter, both OWI and CIAA gave special attention to Hispanic Americans. Memorandums from May 1942 express some of their interest with titles such as “The Spanish Americans of the Southwest and the War Effort” and “Information Campaign Among Spanish Americans””
Although OWI and CIAA were already interested in the Hispanic community, events in Los Angeles, California in late summer and fall of 1942 led to them getting more heavily engaged in outreach to the community. The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, as it became known, involved the death of twenty-two year old José Díaz in August 1942, which was attributed by police to Mexican-American youth violence. The subsequent arrest and trial of twenty-two young Mexican-Americans (a trial in which they were denied due process), raised racial tensions and unrest. Furthermore, reports of anti-American radio broadcasts to Latin America by the Axis powers exploiting the situation to sway public opinion against the Allied powers and to drive a wedge into domestic American solidarity become an additional concern to OWI and CIAA. As a result, Alan Cranston, Chief of OWI’s Foreign Language Division, and a future Senator (Dem. CA), travelled to Los Angeles in November 1942 to meet with community leaders, newspaper publishers, elected officials, and others to discuss the situation and come up with ways to improve it.
At the conclusion of his visit, Cranston reported the following:
“The critical situation has been overcome completely. All that remains for O.W.I. to do is for the Foreign Language Division to continue its present program of war information in the Spanish language to Mexicans in the United States. That this program must be carried on goes without saying, and there is room for considerable expansion of it via the media of posters and radio transcription.” – Report from Alan Cranston to Elmer Davis, Nov. 28, 1942
Specifically, in regard to posters, Cranston was interested in the following themes being shown:
“(1) Mexicans and Americans are fighting and working side by side for freedom.
(2) The American Government opposes discrimination against Mexicans or any other minority in the United States.
(3) Victory for the United States means victory for Mexico and all our other Allies.
(4) American Mexicans are badly wanted to serve in the American armed forces, in American factories, and on American farms.
(5) American Mexicans have already gloriously done their part on Bataan and on other battlefronts.”
Shortly after Cranston’s trip to California, Leon Helguera, a New York based commercial artist, was commissioned by OWI’s Foreign Language Division, in January 1943, to produce four color posters identified as the “Southwestern” or “Spanish-American” posters. The images, with slogans in Spanish and English, included patriotic symbols and were meant to appeal to Americans of Mexican descent. The production order for one of the posters specifies that the soldiers in American uniform should have Mexican-American faces. Individually the posters were titled Una Sola Causa (A Single Cause); Ellos Nos Protejan (They Protect Us), with the caption “Our Soldiers Protect Us – Let Us Give Them Our Help;” and two different posters titled Americanos Todos (Americans All). Of the four commissioned posters, only the one version of Americanos Todos (Americans All) has been found in the National Archives holdings. The production sheets for the SW posters, dated January – April 1943, appear below.
The following correspondence is filed with the production sheets.
Leon Helguera (1899 – 1970) was a fitting choice to design artwork intended for a Hispanic audience. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, he attended an American school in Mexico City and at the age of 17 arrived at the Port of New York with relatives, listing his occupation as “Artist.” In 1918, at the age of 19, he completed his U.S. Army draft registration card. The 1930 U.S. census indicates that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was working as a commercial artist at Fisher-McKenzie, Inc., a Manhattan agency, when, in 1942, he joined with other artists to offer their talents to the U.S. government on behalf of the war effort. As part of this group, Helguera’s design for a “United Nations” postage stamp was submitted to OWI and released by the Post Office Department on January 14, 1943. OWI would have already been acquainted with him through the volunteer artists and his stamp design, when they commissioned him to make the Southwestern posters.
The following letter was received by OWI from the aptly named “Buenos Vecinos” (Good Neighbors) club of San Francisco requesting copies of the poster Americans All for club gatherings. Not only has the writer of the request attached a miniature version of the poster to the letter, he also explains that “this group, numbering about 30, is composed of North American citizens as myself, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Venezuelans, Chileans, etc.” and that they meet at the Army-Navy club.
It is probably also not mere coincidence that the term “Americans All” graces Helguera’s poster. This was a phrase in use in the 1940s that had two distinct but related meanings. Often it was used to signify a common bond between the countries of the Western Hemisphere, as it does in a CIAA propaganda documentary made by Julien Bryan in 1941 titled Americans All. In this film, American viewers are introduced to the history and culture of Latin America and the need for all the countries of the Western Hemisphere to work together against the Axis powers. In similar fashion, it appears again as the title of a 1944 March of Time film, and again, but this time in Spanish, as the title of an NBC Spanish-language Radio show (Americanos Todos), which introduced Spanish speaking audiences to North America.
The other meaning of the term engendered a feeling of belonging and unity among a multi-ethnic demographic within the United States. For example, in March 1942, the Detroit Free Press, with support from the City of Detroit and backing from the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF -OWI’s predecessor), staged an event intended to give foreign born workers representing the city’s many minority groups a sense of unity and common purpose. The event, a rally called “Americans All,” attracted a large crowd and enthusiastic reviews from OFF, as can be seen from the following letter.
Leon Helguera’s bilingual poster for the Office of War Information expresses the twin meanings of “Americans All” – a call for unity among Americans of different backgrounds inside the country and for solidarity between the neighbor nations in the Western Hemisphere – themes that aligned it with the desired outcome of Alan Cranston’s November 1942 trip to California at the time of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. This is one poster, of many, from numerous propaganda campaigns conducted by the information agencies of the United States during World War II. The stories behind these images are waiting to be discovered in the holdings of the National Archives.
Despite the efforts of OWI and CIAA, the situation in Los Angeles deteriorated before improving. The Sleepy Lagoon trial ended in guilty convictions for 17, (to be overturned on appeal in 1944), and its unrest was a precursor to the Zoot Suit Riots that engulfed Los Angeles a few months later.
Leon Helguera created more posters for OWI before the end of World War II, the most famous being Uncle Sam in I’m Counting on You! for the Security of War Information campaign. He continued to design postage stamps including the 3-cent U.S.-Canada Friendship issue (1947), the U.S. 3-cent stamp commemorating the 300th Anniversary of New York City (1953), and the joint Mexico-U.S. stamp commemorating Mexico’s War of Independence (1960). Helguera spent over 36 years in the United States before returning to live in Mexico.
This post was inspired by The Art of War: American Poster Art 1941-1945, on exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY through December 31, 2018.
The textual documents featured in this post are from Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, from the following series:
The production sheets and associated correspondence are from Production Sheets, Production Reports, and Budget Reports Concerning Graphic Materials, 1942 – 1943 (NAID 875693). Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Graphics and Printing. Graphics Division.
Buenos Vecinos Correspondence, May 9, 1944: from folder: “Posters,” General Records of the Chief, 1942-1945 (NAID 865055). Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Graphics. Office of the Chief.
The remaining documents are from the folders “Americans All” (NAID 4754534); “California Trip” (NAID 4754475); and “Spanish” (NAID 4754532); which are found within Subject Files of the Chief, 1942-1944 (NAID 922212). Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau. Weekly Press Division. Foreign Language Section.
For records relating to the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs see Record Group 229: Records of the Office of Inter-American Affairs.
Bird, Jr., William L. and Rubinstein, Harry R. Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1998
Sadlier, Darlene J. Americans All: Good Neighbor Cultural Diplomacy in World War II. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2012.
The Art of War: American Poster Art 1941-1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Exhibit Catalog. National Archives and Records Administration, 2018.
The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. “1778-1943 Americans Will Always Fight for Liberty: Poster. Smithsonian American History Museum website.
Good Neighbors: Stories from Latin America in World War II by Victoria Giron. Library of Congress Blog.
Biographical material for Leon Helguera accessed at Ancestry.com:
U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014
New York Passenger and Crew Lists: Year: 1916; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 2485; Line: 7; Page Number: 58
Chihuahua, Mexico, Civil Registration Births, 1861-1947 (Original data: México, Chihuahua, Registro Civil, Nacimientos, 1857–1994. Digital images. Archivo Estatal de Chihuahua. Courtesy of the Academia Mexicana de Genealogia y Heraldica.)
Registration State: New Jersey; Registration County: Mercer; Roll: 1754442; Draft Board: 1
U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 (Original data: United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls. Imaged from Family History Library microfilm.)
1930 United States Federal Census; Census Place: Lyndhurst, Bergen, New Jersey; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0152; FHL microfilm: 2341049 (Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.)
Biographical material from newspapers:
“Mexican Artist Glorifies Backs of People’s Necks” Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, By Lattimer Shaw, Feb. 25, 1935. P. 9.
“Designs For New Wartime Stamps Prepared by Volunteer Artists” New York Times, June 21, 1942, pg. XX10.
“A United Nations Stamp: Tribute to the Allies, Due on Jan. 14 Will Be Followed by Four Freedoms Item” By Kent Stiles, New York Times, Dec. 27, 1942 p. X8.
“Many Colorful Issues are Sponored by U.N.” by H. Carl A. Andersen, Honolulu Advertiser, Aug. 15, 1954, P. B10.
“4 Commemoratives Named for 1959: Gift to P.O. Dept” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 14, 1958. D 11.
“The Mexican Parade: Months of Work Behind Mexico-U.S. Joint Stamp” by David Weber, The Laredo Times, Sept. 18, 1960.
 Both memorandums from folder: “Spanish” (NAID 4754532), Subject Files of the Chief, 1942-1944, (NAID 922212).
 Sadlier, pp. 184-194. Sadlier writes about the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and Alan Cranston’s CA trip and cites the folder “California Trip” with Cranston’s report of Nov. 28, 1942 and Cranston’s Nov. 17, 1942 letter to Norman Ferguson (see below).
 “Report from Alan Cranston to Elmer Davis, Nov. 28, 1942”. Folder: California Trip (NAID 4754475). Subject Files of the Chief, 1942-1944, (NAID 922212).
 Alan Cranston’s Nov. 17, 1942 letter is addressed to Norman Ferguson at the Walt Disney Company, in regard to a poster contest that Cranston had discussed with Disney. This letter is cited by Sadlier in Americans All and by Bird and Rubenstein in Design for Victory. See also The Price of Freedom: ‘1778-1943 Americans Will Always Fight for Liberty.’
 Sadlier, pp. 62-65, 106.